Monday, June 20, 2005

KKK - just like the Rotary, only with burning crosses 

I was never much for reminding Senator Byrd of his KKK past (from memory, I've only mentioned the issue once on this blog, in the context of the Senator's shameful role in blocking visa liberalization for Poland) - after all, we all make mistakes, and so the questions becomes not so much who you were in the past, but whether you were able to deal with that past in a meaningful way. Many eminent conservatives and neo-conservatives have started off on the left - often as hard-core Marxists or Trotskyites - but have thoroughly repudiated their mistakes. The conservative movement accepts all sincere converts; only Pat Buchanans of this world cannot forgive and forget.

But back to Byrd:
In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the "Grand Dragon" for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter.

As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd's organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. "The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation," Baskin said...

Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of his association with one of the most reviled hate groups in the nation's history.

"It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation," Byrd wrote in a new memoir -- "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields" -- that will be published tomorrow by West Virginia University Press.
Still, some things just don't ring true. I don't know, maybe you had to be there, but Byrd's defense - I wasn't a racist, merely an opportunist - jars a bit (particularly when contrasted with some of Byrd's views from the 1940s):
Byrd says he viewed the Klan as a useful platform from which to launch his political career. He described it essentially as a fraternal group of elites -- doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges and other "upstanding people" who at no time engaged in or preached violence against blacks, Jews or Catholics, who historically were targets of the Klan.
You have to ask yourself then, if that was indeed the case, what was the point of at least that particular chapter of the KKK? Would you have joined Nazi Party just because people at your local branch were actually quite swell? (this is not the closest analogy, since unlike the Nazi Party, the KKK was actually quite an entrenched and familiar Southern institution - but the basic point stands). And if Byrd genuinely wanted to network, why didn't he join the Rotary, Lions, Freemasons, or any other fraternal-type organization for local professionals and businessmen, which would have come without all the racist baggage?

"My only explanation for the entire episode is that I was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision - a jejune and immature outlook - seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions," writes Byrd. It remains a sad indictment on West Virginian politics half a century ago and/or young Byrd's judgment that joining the Klan, as opposed to, say, the Democratic Party, could be considered a great springboard for a political career. One hopes those days are now long gone.

Perhaps I'm wrong on this, but I find it easier to forgive those repenting their sincere past commitment to unsavory ideas rather then their rank opportunism.


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